Often on at least some Stack Exchange sites you see people equate "topic" with any and all qualities of a question, answer, or comment, rather than just their topic in the usual English sense. Especially so in the phrases "on-topic" and "off-topic". Invented examples:

  • This question is off-topic because it's a list question.
  • This question is too broad with too many possible answer to be on topic.
  • Recommendations are off-topic.
  • This question will just attract peoples' opinions so it's off topic.

Am I right or wrong to be bugged by this? Topic has a meaning in English. It's useful to distinguish the various things that can be wrong about a question, answer, or comment. Asking about boats on a programming site is off-topic. Asking to recommend some programming books in on-topic but it's not a good question for reasons other than topic.

It particularly bothers me when people vote to close a question and click the "off topic" radio button when the question has some real problem but is clearly within the scope of the site.

Taken to its logical conclusion, if we were to go with this new jargonish meaning of "topic" we would not need any close reason other than "off-topic". Are duplicate questions off-topic?

Also, how should we distinguish the two senses "this post is a bad for for SE" and "this post is outside the scope of this SE site". If a question actually is off-topic, how should we say so if people are encouraged to read "off topic" as meaning "has one of many possible problems"?

Are we saying that "on topic" has a different meaning to "with the scope"? Should it be so?

I would like to encourage people to use "off-topic" as a close reason only for questions outside a site's scope. And to encourage people not to be informed about what a question;s scope is and what its other properties are and how to know the difference between the various reasons a question or other post can be bad.

Am I just being a grammar Nazi or is there a meaningful reason to blur the meaning of "topic" on Stack Exchange?


Here are some previous questions that touch on the blurry meanings of "off topic" / "on topic" / "scope" within Stack Exchange:

  • 1
    What's the actual problem you're trying to fix? We can't fix your prescriptive view of language - only you can do that (try Language Log) – EnergyNumbers Aug 18 '16 at 6:19
  • Nothing to fix at all. Last time +163/-4, this time +1/-4. Clear, concise, consistent, elegant. False accusation false dichotomy. Thank you for constructively putting me in my place. – hippietrail Aug 18 '16 at 12:38

I think the way topic is used on Stack Exchange sites broadly equates to the scope of each site and that consists of:

  • the actual topic which is usually, but not always, readable in the name of the site; and
  • the scope defined in the help pages which refines it some more

I think it is useful to let the term topic be used on Stack Exchange sites in the broad sense that we see today.

I tend to interpret on-topic for a site as being something OK to post on that site and off-topic as being something not OK to post on that site.

I can be a grammar nazi too but in this case I think the genie is out of the bottle.

  • What about overuse of "off topic" as a close reason? Is that a symptom of a problem or a "doesn't matter" kinda thing. Us nerds usually like our precise technical terms. Anything that's part of the system that supports "doesn't matter" might even seem like a bit of a "design smell". Ie could the close-reason stuff do with improvement? – hippietrail Aug 18 '16 at 5:30
  • 1
    I think the close reasons always have room for improvement as sites evolve, but I think they are workable as they are. You and I are probably at one extreme of the spectrum from English speakers keen to use good grammar to those who would like to write the way they text and may or may not be using their first language. I think pragmatism often wins out here, and I can live with that. – PolyGeo Aug 18 '16 at 5:37
  • I am also a pragmatist. I may take to pointing out the difference between "off topic" and "not within the scope" when I see users confused by the difference between the literal meaning and de facto meaning. Drawing wrong conclusions, etc. – hippietrail Aug 18 '16 at 5:42

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